Surely a young beauty like yourself is lonely, too. It can be a part of the game, if you like.”
“Get off,” she said, thoroughly done with this.
His answer was to lean in closer. So she kneed him in the groin. As hard as she could.
“Aw, ow, dammit!” He doubled over and thudded onto his knees.
Jane brushed off her knee, feeling like it had touched something dirty. “Aw, ow, dammit indeed! What’re you thinking?”
Jane heard hurried footsteps coming down the stairs. It was Mr. Nobley.
“Miss Erstwhile!” He was barefoot in his breeches, his shirt untucked. He glanced down at the groaning man. “Sir Templeton!”
“Ow, she kicked me,” said Sir Templeton.
“Kneed him, I kneed him,” Jane said. “I don’t kick. Not even when I’m a ninja.”
Mr. Nobley stood a moment in silence, looking over the scene. “I hope you remembered to shout ‘Ya’ when taking him down. I hear that is very effective.”
“I’m afraid I neglected that bit, but I’ll certainly ‘ya’ from here to London if he ever touches me again.”
“Miss Erstwhile, were you perhaps employed by your president’s armed forces in America?”
“What? Don’t British women know how to use their knees?”
“Happily, I have never put myself in a position to find out.” He stared at the prostrate Sir Templeton. “Did he hurt you?”
“Frankly, your arm-yanking earlier was worse.”
“I see. Perhaps you should retire to your chambers, Miss Erstwhile. Would you like me to escort you?”
“I’m fine,” she said, “as long as there aren’t any other Sir Templetons lurking upstairs.”
“Well, I cannot give Colonel Andrews a glowing reference, but I believe the way is safe.”
She stepped closer to Mr. Nobley and whispered, “Are you going to out me to Mrs. Wattlesbrook for the servants’ quarters lurking?”
“I think,” he said, nudging the prostrate Sir Templeton with his foot, “that you have suffered enough tonight.”
Mr. Nobley smiled at her, the first time she had seen his real smile. She wouldn’t go so far as to call it a grin. His lips were closed, but his eyes brightened and the corners of his mouth definitely turned up, creating pleasing little cheek wrinkles on either side as though the smile were in parentheses. It bothered her in a way she couldn’t explain, like feeling itchy but not knowing exactly where to scratch. He was not particularly amused, she saw, but smiled to reassure her. Wait, who wanted to reassure her? Mr. Nobley or the actual man, Actor X?
“Thanks. Good night, Mr. Nobley.”
“Good night, Miss Erstwhile.”
She hesitated, then left, Sir Templeton’s groans following her up the stairs. On the second floor, Aunt Saffronia was emerging from her room, clutching a white shawl over her nightgown.
“What was that noise? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. It was…your husband. He was being inappropriate.”
Aunt Saffronia blinked. “Inebriated?”
She nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, Jane.”
Jane wasn’t sure if Aunt Saffronia was speaking to Jane the niece or Jane the client. For the first time it didn’t matter; both Janes felt exactly the same. She acknowledged the apology with a nod, went to her room, and locked the door behind her. She thought she was angry but instead she plopped herself down on her bed, put her face in her pillow, and laughed.
“What a joke,” she said, sounding to herself like the movie incarnation of Lydia Bennet. “I come for Mr. Darcy, fall for the gardener, and get propositioned by the drunk husband.”
Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow she would play for real. She was going to drive full force into the game, have a staggering good time, and kick the nasty Darcy habit for good. She fell asleep with the ticklish thought of Mr. Nobley’s smile.